As the Brexit saga staggers on, the focus is naturally enough on the Prime Minister and his attempts to achieve Brexit, “do or die”. But the role played by the Leader of the Opposition is of almost equal interest and complexity.
The first problem for Jeremy Corbyn is that he seems unable, under the pressure of varying advice from different quarters, to decide on the stance he should take on Brexit. This is surprising, given that all the evidence suggests that he is a eurosceptic from a long way back.
My own impression of him in the days when we were both backbench Labour MPs was that he was, like most on the left of the party, suspicious of an arrangement that was manifestly dominated by bankers and bureaucrats and designed to serve the interests of big business and multinational corporations.
And in more recent (and especially post-referendum) times, he can hardly have been unaware that it has been his own voters who were most grievously disadvantaged by the high food prices, and the threats to jobs, wage levels, housing, schools and health services, that came with EU membership.
Even his much-touted internationalism surely does not preclude some recognition of the undoubted desire of ordinary citizens to live in a country in which they are masters of their own destiny.
Be all this as it may, there is an even more impenetrable mystery at the heart of his current Brexit stance. How is it that he has not taken the chance to press for resolving the Brexit impasse by going to the people? What Leader of the Opposition worth his salt would not leap at the chance of a general election, so as to submit the government’s record – on Brexit and everything else – to the judgment of the people?
It beggars belief that Jeremy Corbyn has twice led his troops into the division lobbies in order to negate the possibility of a general election that would offer a means not only of resolving the Brexit issue, but also of replacing a government of which he has been so bitterly critical.
The answer to these questions is surely, after a mere moment’s reflection, painfully clear: Jeremy Corbyn does not want an election at this juncture, because he fears that it would be primarily about Brexit and that Labour – in the light of his own prevarications on the issue – would be soundly defeated.
So much for the constant message from Remainers (including those who currently seem to have Corbyn’s ear) that Brexit must not come to pass before the people have a further opportunity to express an opinion.
There is, however, an obvious escape route for Corbyn from this dilemma. He could reaffirm his earlier assurance that Labour will accept the referendum decision and deliver Brexit, thereby removing Brexit as the dividing line between the two major parties and as the potentially election-winning issue for Boris Johnson.
Taking this step would not only make political sense. It would allow Corbyn to stay true to what I believe are his own instincts (and politicians are always more effective if they are seen to be sincere and not merely posturing) and to campaign successfully, with a clear mind and conscience, on holding a Tory government to account in respect of its whole record and not just Brexit.
Bryan Gould was Labour MP for Southampton Test between 1974 and 1979 and then represented Dagenham between 1983 and 1994. He held a variety of shadow cabinet posts under Neil Kinnock and was defeated in the 1992 contest to succeed him as Labour leader by John Smith, in whose shadow cabinet he briefly served before resigning in opposition to the party’s European policy. He had served in the British Diplomatic Service before embarking on his political career and on leaving Parliament in 1994 he returned to his native New Zealand, where he served for ten years as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Waikato. He blogs at bryangould.com.